We have been getting to know Stephen Green through our participation in the Noodle Advisory Board. Stephen has served as Noodle’s chief program officer since 2017. Prior to that role, Stephen worked in leadership positions at Qubed, eCornell and 2U. Stephen graciously agreed to answer our questions.
Q: Let’s start with Noodle. One of the challenges for Noodle is that the higher education community has a hard time making sense of what you do. The company has seemed to want to define itself as an alternative type of online program management company. At the same time, Noodle has moved away from positioning itself as an online program “general contractor.” Can you help explain what Noodle does and how Noodle is different from a traditional OPM?
A: OPMs have been an important part of helping higher education realize the potential that online education has for student access, as well as expanding the definition of quality in terms of student and faculty engagement and learning. Our team founded and ran a number of the more notable OPMs, and we continue to believe in the value of OPMs helping colleges and universities deliver great educational experiences to as many students as possible.
Our concern with how the OPM industry evolved over the past 15 years, largely with multidecade revenue-share contracts, is the lack of financial transparency on actual operating costs and service delivery flexibility. That combination effectively holds colleges and universities hostage with respect to their own programs and eliminates any real chance for higher education to build its own institutional capacity in online servicing. That capacity building is crucial for higher education to remain a pre-eminent presence in an increasingly online ecosystem.
The more capacity and understanding higher education has in online servicing, the better they will collaborate with the OPM industry on how to push the envelope further on what great learning experiences should look like 10, 20, 50, 100 years down the road.
As we partner with higher education with its best interests top of mind, our focus is to deliver a suite of services for online program support that are excellent, flexible and ultimately half the cost of the traditional 60 percent revenue-share agreements. Our focus on the cost of service is to ensure that our partners retain the great majority of the revenue from their programs so that they have the ability to increase their scholarship awards and ultimately reduce the cost of attendance for students. Being transparent about the actual line-item costs to launch and run an online program, working to drive greater efficiencies and reduce those costs, and ensuring our partners benefit so students can benefit is our focus and why we are different. We will win if our partners and their students win. It is not so much what we do that differs (services are services, by and large); it is our philosophical approach to how we do it and why that is different.
Q: The world of online learning is especially complex right now. There are many different types of entities, from colleges and universities to for-profit companies, involved in creating online degree and certificate programs. There is still much to learn about the cost, value and efficacy of online learning. What role do you see Noodle playing in helping to answer these questions? Can Noodle help contribute to the intellectual work needed to fully understand the place of online learning in higher ed?
A: We completely agree on the complexity of the online learning world. If we consider the multiple centuries that colleges and universities have been operating and juxtapose that with how comparatively young the internet is, let alone online education, it is safe to say that we are in the very early days of online learning. Like all industries that will be part of our society for centuries, there are complexities, challenges and evolutions that will undoubtedly continue.
However, hard challenges are never solved in isolation. The more smart people who are around the table trying to tackle a problem, the more creative and diverse the solutions will emerge. Putting an emphasis on solutions as a plural and not singular; there are many approaches that can help different types of institutions serving different audiences of learners. We believe our solution is distinct and meets needs as we see them, but others in the market meet needs as they see them—and that is what makes an industry and pushes the early evolution forward.
Given our disposition on prioritizing transparency and what is best for higher education (see response to question one), we believe we are in a unique position to facilitate bringing higher education closer to understanding the terrain and helping institutions position themselves for the evolution of online learning. There are some salient examples in our current operations where research can help illuminate the intersection between higher education and online learning.
Service Flexibility and Institutional Capacity
- Our core business model allows for institutions to deliver services alongside us if they desire and have operational capacity and resource commitment to do so. From a research-trend perspective, over 25 percent of our university partners already execute services in some capacity after we model best practices and evaluate their infrastructure and implementation ability. (Caution: Underindexing on either of those fronts can be destructive to a school or online program.) That service flexibility helps their overall institutional awareness of how to operate and positions them to be able to think through and plan for their campus evolution with a more refined perspective and understanding. Still, institutions will not want to perform some services for the foreseeable future, and we will continue to do those services and blend with campuses based on their needs. None of this capacity building and blending would be possible in a traditional revenue-share OPM model.
Noodle Learning Platform
- We announced earlier this year that we will launch our open courses platform. The primary objective in that initiative is to help higher education reclaim the lifelong learning space by allowing colleges and universities to offer and control the course experience and prospect information as a means of increasing completion rates and decreasing cost of acquisition across their degree programs, respectively. We built our platform with an eye toward researching the outcomes of the learning experience as well as tracking the cross enrollment of open course learners into partner degree programs, online or on the ground. Over the coming years, that type of information will contribute to the intellectual work needed for higher education to best position itself in the lifelong learning space.
- At the request of our university partners, we are building out a corporate partnerships function to help bridge the gap between higher education and the employers of the world that need degree-educated and/or highly skilled professionals. We will position the right programs with the right employers to help them recruit, retain and upskill their workforce. We will announce more about this soon. The nuance to our approach is that we will develop our strategy to help our universities lower their operating costs for online programs rather than put our own margins at the forefront of the strategy, which our partners will be able to see given our transparency around marketing and recruiting costs in our model. As we evolve this strategy, we will measure and report on our progress with the impact we will have on reducing the cost of acquisition.
Q: We want to close this Q&A by asking you about trust. The perception is that many in traditional nonprofit academia have a hard time trusting for-profit online education companies. Many of us in higher education worry that schools and companies have fundamentally different incentives, time frames and cultures. This concern—this lack of trust—may lie at the heart of at least some of the opposition to nonprofit/for-profit partnerships in the online learning space. How would you address the idea that there is a challenge of trust between schools and companies, academics and executives, in the online learning space? What might be done to build trust?
A: The reality is that a trust gap does exist between higher education and for-profit companies. Pretending as if there is no trust gap just delays the work to bridge the gap.
If we break down what “trust” really means, it is largely about reliability and dependability; that is to say that any individual or company is only as reliable or dependable as its motivations and interests allow them to be. One of the cleanest ways to evaluate a company’s motivations and interests is to evaluate their contract framework—i.e., what are the terms by which they contract with their clients. Traditional OPM contracts (decades long, prohibitively expensive to exit or not renew, no service flexibility, etc.) have made it hard to engender a great deal of trust, particularly as higher education becomes more comfortable with and knowledgeable about online education.
Traditional OPMs will have to solve for that to be truly trusted by higher education. Perhaps the GAO/DOE work over the next couple of years will accelerate the thinking on how to reframe agreements to establish a better alignment. However, it is not our place to answer how other companies will rebuild trust with higher education (if they even believe there is a trust gap). All that we can do is deliver a model and a contract framework that reflects our motivations and interests and work hard to execute against that in such a way that contributes to trust-building.
But trust is a two-way street, and higher education will need to continue to be open to the expertise of companies (OPMs and others) and be willing to find an intersection, conceding they are not the expert in some areas. The key to the evolution of online learning in these very early days is the collaboration to find that intersection.